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Embracing Excess in the Classroom: A Commitment for APIA Heritage Month

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    Eric Shieh

During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and throughout the year, we are featuring the voices of a few of the many AAPI leaders and EL Education partners who are making waves in education.

A few years ago, in my third visit to China and for the first time in my life I began to find Chinese people beautiful. I happen to be Chinese American, in my late thirties.

This is how Cathy Park Hong describes Asian self-hate, using the second person pronoun in an all too familiar experience:

“You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head."(1)

That year, I found myself in the city of Xiamen, where a grandfather I never met went to school. I was invited by music education researchers Randall Allsup and Chiao-Wei Liu, who were convening a group of music teachers from several different countries to collaboratively write and perform a series of operas. Over the course of a month, despite having little language in common, a group of 30 music educators from 6 countries came together for what amounted to a grand experiment in intercultural creativity. A venue for the final performances was booked before our arrival. Can you imagine?(2)

To call this one of the strangest undertakings I have ever been a part of would be an understatement. Yet I found myself uniquely suited to it. For one thing, as a bilingual Mandarin-English speaker, I was one of few participants who could communicate across the two most prominent languages in the group.

The truth is, like too many Asian Americans, I have come to see myself as a perpetual foreigner in the U.S. and in China I am very much the American outsider. Yet here, in this diverse classroom of learners fumbling at an improbable task, quite absurdly I belonged in a way I hadn’t before.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t feel inadequate at times—and indeed I felt impossibly challenged throughout the experience. But rather the very things that made me an outsider in so much of my life had taken on excess value. My body, it turns out, was more—more valuable, more knowledgeable, more beautiful for it.

This month many teachers will celebrate notable individuals, teach important cultural traditions, and—of course—play music to honor Asian and Pacific Islander American heritages. Yes!

And also: I want us to search for something more—something stranger and less fixed in who Asian or Pacific Islander Americans presumably are. Something that calls us to our histories but remains open. I’m after a curricular experience that gives students both the space to own their inheritances and the power to reshape our collective present. For to teach the former without the latter is to risk confining students to a stunted mythology of Asianness in America, captured perhaps by my high school experience serving eggrolls at the opening of Disney’s Mulan for theatergoers in my hometown of St. Louis.(3)

Here is the closest I’ve come with my students.

In my eighth grade classroom, as part of an interdisciplinary Expedition on human migration, I’ve taken to splitting my music classes into jazz combos. Taking inspiration from violinist Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread album, students in each group begin by searching for songs for their combo to play that originate from another country—and preferably ones they have a family connection to. Students in each group share and listen to the different songs, evaluate them for playability, argue for their favorites, and come to a consensus about one to play.

I am constantly surprised by the choices. Groups often eschew the popular songs, like perennial favorites by Bob Marley, for songs a group member claims a deeper relationship to. One memorable moment was when a group had difficulty deciding between Rahul Nambiar’s “Gha Gha Megha” and Shakira’s “Waka Waka.” J., the student of Indian heritage who suggested “Gha Gha Megha,” spoke about how he felt so few people in the U.S. were familiar with Indian music compared to the emerging Latin pop market. As he put it, the group had a chance to do something different. His passionate argument won the group over.

It doesn’t take long before each group, in the way of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, comes to embrace the song they have chosen as a group identity. As the project unfolds in a series of rehearsals and classroom presentations, students begin to refer to each other as the “Gha Gha Megha” group, the “月亮代表我的心” group, or the “Mi Burrito Sabanero” group—in what amounts to a strange kind of ownership.

It’s not just that J.’s class learned a bit more about Indian popular songs, but that J.’s group collaboratively transformed the song in line with their emerging musical instincts, and J. brought a relationship he has to his heritage into a relationship with a living present.


I don’t wish to overstate the impact of a single music project, or name this as some kind of best practice. What I would like to ask with you, however, is how do we lead a process of ownership that allows APIA-identifying students to move into our classes with an embrace of tradition that begins but does not end? And non-APIA-identifying students to recognize these differences as part of a bold and compelling present?

I think of this work as having two pulls: the pull towards difference—the places students are distanced from what they perceive as dominant American culture, and the pull to connect with these differences in some collaborative endeavor.

The pull towards difference suggests that teachers might create experiences that call students to bring their differing inheritances to the curriculum as necessary work. It means avoiding a tendency as educators to collapse distances between those in our classes; we are too good at neatly narrating cultural differences into a predetermined framework. Personally, I have found language to be a key lever in this work. There is power in using primary texts that are not in English and having students (and I) grapple with them, including asking bilinguals and emergent bilinguals in the room for assistance.(4)

The pull to connect, even as we hold these differences, suggests the need for teachers to facilitate open-ended and collaborative tasks whose products invite cultural hybrids, social solidarities, and problem-solving built from our different experiences. Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha argues this is where culture lives—where traditions expand and grow, “based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. To that end we should remember that it is the “inter”–the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space—that carries the burden of meaning of culture. . . . And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves.” (5)

It deserves reminding that the category of “Asian and Pacific Islander American” is an awkward one. In my mind, we are in excess of it—not simply in the immense diversity of traditions under its umbrella, but also because the term encapsulates a moving target: the millions of persons building lives with, through, and apart from these traditions.

In celebration of that excess, then, perhaps this month we might commit our classrooms to creating something strange and in-between.


(1) Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning (New York: One World, 2020), p. 10

(2) Randall Allsup writes compellingly about new possibilities for music education in his book Remixing the Classroom: Toward an Open Philosophy of Music Education (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016).

(3) Chan Kwok-bun powerfully explores the ways many Chinese immigrants and their descendants find “tradition” wielded against them in Chinese Identities, Ethnicity, and Cosmopolitanism (New York: Routledge, 2005).

(4) Ofelia Garcia and Jo Anne Kleifgen’s Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Learners, 2nd Ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2018) is a critical guide for me in how to rethink work with English learners.

(5) Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994): pp. 38-39

Author bio

Eric Shieh is a music teacher and founding team member of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a NYC Outward Bound School, where he also co-leads the school’s Equity Team. His writing amplifies the work of teachers in education policy, with recent publications in Arts Education Policy Review and the Music Educators Journal, along with numerous op-eds at The Washington Post and Hechinger Report. He has previously taught music and writing in prisons in Michigan and Missouri, served as a policy strategist for the New York City Department of Education, and holds an Ed.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Teachers College, Columbia University.

*EL Education is proud to host diverse voices and offer a platform for dialogue on topics impacting educators and students. Views of guest bloggers are their own and may differ from the views of EL Education.